ATS-Applicant Tracking System

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Could ATS be the reason you didn’t get called for that interview?

A couple of years back, I confidently submitted my CV online to apply for a vacancy, just as I have done many times before. I was more than qualified for the job, and I knew that if invited, I would ace the interview. Besides, since the beginning of my career, there was never a time I did not get invited for an interview for any of the jobs I applied for. So needless to say, I was super confident that I’d get that call. Days turned to weeks and no call, I was really baffled. I could not understand why I didn’t make the shortlist even though I ticked all the boxes for the requirements, it just did not make sense to me at all at the time.

Fast forward many years later, I started hearing the word ATS. It sounded like some exotic virus to me, like “Hey Susan, I’m really sorry I could not make it to your party last weekend I caught ATS but don’t worry I’m fine now”. Little did I know this ATS “virus” is the reason I did not get that interview. Looking back at the CV I submitted and gauging it against job specs for similar roles it now makes complete sense that I didn’t make the cut. Sad thing is, many professionals are yet to discover how this ATS is standing in their way of getting the jobs they want.

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Thanks to google, we all know that ATS is an acronym for Applicant Tracking System, but how many people really understand how it works and how it affects the job application process? When job boards came into the picture in the late 90’s, electronic recruitment systems or applicant tracking systems were not far behind. It made sense as it became far easier to apply for a job so, each post got a lot more applicants and having a person or people vet every individual CV was a mundane task not to mention time-consuming.

ATS is similar to CRMs, it does more than shortlist candidates, it also offers features like interview scheduling and manages contact with the candidates; overall, it provides companies with end-to-end recruitment automation. The most commonly used (and the largest) ATS globally is Taleo, and it is owned by Oracle. It is very important to be familiar with ATS requirements as 90% of medium and large companies use applicant tracking systems, and only an average of 25% of CVs pass the ATS screening stage. This does not mean that the 25% represents the most qualified candidates, it just means they have the most ATS optimised CVs. Seeing that 75% of CVs get rejected before reaching human eyes, makes optimising your CV a basic necessity and not a bonus.

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Mistakes to avoid when optimising your CV for ATS

Keyword overload: Some applicant tracking systems use sophisticated algorithms that will pick up irregularities on your CV, such as an abnormally high keyword match. If the CV makes it though in cases where companies still use dated ATS, the HR personnel or recruiter will definitely pick this up when your CV makes it to them.

Buzzwords: Specialised, experienced, detail-oriented, motivated, team player, leader are some of the most overused buzzwords on CVs. You want your CV to stand out, so try avoiding using common buzzwords because you don’t want to pass ATS filtering only to have your CV chucked by the first person that reviews it. Another consideration is that there is a recommended CV length, and you don’t want to make your CV unnecessarily lengthy by adding meaningless phrases. The Balance wrote a great article on Top 10 CV buzzwords – and how to avoid them

Cheating the system: There is a lot of bad advice out there on how to get around ATS or bluntly put, how to cheat your way through ATS. The most common one making the rounds is how you should copy and paste the job spec at the bottom of your CV, make the text super small and white so it is not visible to human eyes. Please don’t do this, it is a terrible idea, if you came across this information, it is unreasonable to think recruiters are not aware of this “trick”. Think of what it does to your credibility when you get caught,  it is extremely easy to pick this up.

It’s not all doom and gloom, there are things you can to optimise your CV for ATS by using techniques similar to those used in search engine optimisation (SEO). The most important thing to remember is to stay completely truthful, if you get caught lying on your CV, you could get blacklisted and lose out on future opportunities within that organisation.

Tips for an ATS compatible CV

Start with a job spec: If you know what the role requirements are you are better equipped to understand what proficiencies to focus on. This may mean tailoring your CV for each of the different roles you apply for. Skills you may deem unimportant to mention may be just the skills that will help your CV rate high when scanned.

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Make a list: Listing all the keywords on the job spec that are applicable to you is a great starting point when writing your CV, it provides direction and will help you not to undersell yourself by leaving out required skills you are in possession of.

Keyword match tastefully: Don’t just randomly throw keywords all over or make a lengthy list of every keyword. Work the important keywords into your summary then have a list of skills and a list of attributes or soft skills. Another great place to use for keyword matching is under career history, as you summarise each role keep the job spec in mind and highlight relevant skills and experience.

Education is important: The advantage of your CV being shortlisted by a human is that humans are able to determine your role suitability in the absence of required qualifications based on the amount of relevant experience you have. ATS on the other hand is not so forgiving, if the role requires a bachelor’s degree or higher and you don’t have it, you may not get past the ATS. When adding your education, use both long-form and acronym version, example “Master of Business Administration (MBA)”.

Use standard headings: ATS will look for specific words on your CV so do not get creative with your headings. Use standard/common headings such as Work History/Career History/Work Experience.

Use the correct format: Use consistent formatting for dates throughout your CV. Though visually appealing, adding graphs to your CV is not useful as ATS won’t be able to read them so save the space and don’t include them. Rather have your achievements in bullet point. Best file formats to use is .pdf or .docx.

Bonus Tip: Your CV must pass both robot and human eyes. Don’t focus so much on ATS optimisation that you end up with a CV that fails to impress a human. Always write your CV with the recruiter and hiring manager in mind, then optimise that CV for ATS, do not try and do it the other way around it will be more difficult.

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